Bone morphogenetic proteins (BMP) have important but distinct roles in tissue homeostasis and disease, including carcinogenesis and tumor progression. A large number of BMP inhibitors are available to study BMP function; however, as most of these antagonists are promiscuous, evaluating specific effects of individual BMPs is not feasible. Because the oncogenic role of the different BMPs varies for each neoplasm, highly selective BMP inhibitors are required. Here, we describe the generation of three types of llama-derived heavy chain variable domains (VHH) that selectively bind to either BMP4, to BMP2 and 4, or to BMP2, 4, 5, and 6. These generated VHHs have high affinity to their targets and are able to inhibit BMP signaling. Epitope binning and docking modeling have shed light into the basis for their BMP specificity. As opposed to the wide structural reach of natural inhibitors, these small molecules target the grooves and pockets of BMPs involved in receptor binding. In organoid experiments, specific inhibition of BMP4 does not affect the activation of normal stem cells. Furthermore, in vitro inhibition of cancer-derived BMP4 noncanonical signals results in an increase of chemosensitivity in a colorectal cancer cell line. Therefore, because of their high specificity and low off-target effects, these VHHs could represent a therapeutic alternative for BMP4(+) malignancies.
©2015 American Association for Cancer Research.